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A comedy 3d shoot for Sky

There is no shortage of firsts in Sky 1’s Christmas comedy anthology Little Crackers.

The series of 12 comedy shorts includes the UK’s – if not the world’s – first TV comedy to be shot in 3d. It marks the directorial debut for several of the writers – namely Catherine Tate, Julia Davis and Bill Bailey. And it’s Sky 1’s head of comedy Lucy Lumsden’s first series commission to air.

The starting point for Lumsden and Sky 1 controller Stuart Murphy was deciding on their comedy writing wishlist. “When we thought about who we’d approach the rule of thumb was would you read their autobiography?” says Lumsden, who declares she was “thrilled” by the take up, with top names such as Victoria Wood, Catherine Tate, Stephen Fry, Julia Davis, Dawn French, Bill Bailey, Jo Brand and Meera Syal all agreeing to pen scripts.

Next came pairing the writers up with a producer. Grouping several scripts with each producer made sense because it meant that more of the budget ended up on screen, explains Lumsden.

Renegade Pictures was a logical choice to make Meera Syal’s short film, to be shot in 3d, given the indie’s experience making C4’s The Queen in 3d last year.

Writer and comedy actress Meera Syal, who attended the shoot of her film, comments: “I think we discovered why not many people shoot in 3d, because it actually takes a long time to set up. Everybody was new to the equipment so it was quite a learning experience. Of course when it’s done in Hollywood movies they have multiple cameras, but we only had the one so everybody had to work very hard indeed.”

Director Peter Lydon admits: “It was a baptism of fire for all of us. With 3d it's a bigger rig, which needs bigger rooms or a set and somewhere to house the stereographer.”

Plan for double the space and double the time is Lydon’s advice on 3d shooting. “In 2d it takes 2-3 minutes to change a lens. In 3d it takes 20 minutes. Everything takes longer.”

One big challenge for Lydon was coming up with a visual style that would work equally well in 2d and 3d, given that most viewers would only be able to watch in 2d. The visual references for the short were the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose fantasy style characterised by features such as Amelie and Delicatessen made a good match for Syal’s wide-eyed view of the world as a seven-year old.

Director of photography Chris Ross explains: “That meant avoiding gags that only worked in a 3d environment, because we knew that we would be producing a 2d edit as well as a 3d edit.” The camera rig used for the three day shoot comprised two Red One cameras with Zeiss Super Speed primes set up on a 3d rig – which created the interaxial distance mimicking the natural stereoscopic distance of the human eye.

Says Ross: “Shooting 3d is an incredibly complicated business because you have to take into account a third dimension. Whenever you frame a composition you plan it in 2d and then decide where in relation to the TV screen that depth is going to appear.”

One important tip is not to overdo the use of 3d perspective, adds Ross. “Most of the time you want to be gentle on the audience, with the subject appearing on the surface of the image and other elements falling off into distance so that the sensation of the three dimensions is an extension of the sense of perspective that you have in 2d.”

“But occasionally there will be a moment that you want to emphasise. We had to work out beforehand at what point in the story we are going to allow audiences’ brains to rest and at what point in the story are we going to push the boundaries by getting things to loom out at them.”

Ross warns that rapid changes of perspective in 3d are to be avoided because it forces viewers to change their focus abruptly. “If you have people watching 3d images with glasses you can tell when you have gone too far as people take their glasses off – usually when they see an image that appears to touch them on the nose.”

Ross likens the process to cutting to a close up. “You don’t want all the dialogue shot in a close up all the time as you lose the emphasis. You have to choose your moment.”

Posted 10 December 2010 by David Wood

Passing the Countryfile test

It’s been a week of juicy headlines for the newspapers and a week of astonishing admissions from senior BBC executives as the Countryfile industrial tribunal reached the end of its first week.

For those who've been too busy to pay attention, former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly is claiming she was axed from the BBC show’s line up when it was relaunched in a prime time slot, because she failed the primetime test – she was too old. O’Reilly, 53, and other presenters Charlotte Smith, Michaela Strachan and Juliet Morris – all in their 40s and 50s – were dropped from the show when it moved to primetime. O’Reilly is suing the BBC for ageism and sexism.

The BBC’s head of rural affairs Andrew Thorman countered that the decision to drop O’Reilly had nothing to do with ageism but was based on her profile – or lack of it – as a presenter.

At the tribunal we have heard from a wide range of BBC figures including the BBC's head of daytime Liam Keelan, and outgoing BBC1 controller Jay Hunt. On the eyebrow-raising comments front, first Keelan said he rarely watched the show and had no idea who Miriam O’Reilly was – BBC bosses are usually a little more supportive of their output.

More astonishing still, Jay Hunt denied appearance was a significant consideration in television and insisted she had ‘never considered the way someone looks’ when deciding to put them on screen.

 If this is true I’m not quite sure where the phrase ‘a face for radio’ came from. Surely appearance must be a consideration when channel controllers make judgements about newsreaders and presenters.

Although this is possibly the first time that a presenter has attempted to sue the BBC for age discrimination, it’s an issue that crops up increasingly regularly. Accusations of ageism were levelled at the corporation last year when 60-year-old Arlene Phillips was turfed out of Strictly Come Dancing in favour of 30-year-old Alesha Dixon.

One thing is certain. Whatever the outcome of the tribunal, it is likely to make TV executives less cavalier in how they deal with older employees going forward. If the TV industry does – as its reputation suggests –  favour youth over experience, particularly in the case of women, it's a habit due for a re-appraisal.

But it could also make the process of rejuvenating programmes in need of a facelift much more difficult, with anybody who suffers as a consequence claiming some form of discrimination.

For its part, the BBC argues that it was the skillsets of the presenters which weren’t right for the new-look Countryfile, not their appearances. In peak time it’s a case of less journalism, more profile. Perhaps the real problem the BBC has is not a preference for younger rather than older presenters, but its editorial values. I, for one, would like to see a bit more journalism in BBC1 peak time and a bit less profile.

Posted 12 November 2010 by David Wood

Time for boom or bust?

Is the media industry heading for the dreaded double dip?

Here's the views and opinions of seven TV professionals – from producers, post-producers, financiers through to lawyers - on how confident the industry is feeling about its prospects in the wake of the government spending review and BBC licence fee deal.

John McVay
CEO, Pact

I don’t think the media industry is headed for a double dip but times are tough and the challenges will keep on coming for some time. Indies are resilient and innovative, and everyone is working harder than ever. There has already been a shift towards exploiting rights and forming partnerships with international buyers. However, it is important that the focus on quality UK content remains to attract viewers. We hope broadcasters are mindful of this when reviewing their programme budgets which have already seen significant cuts. Indies are flexible and can adapt during tough times but broadcasters should not assume that suppliers, particularly smaller companies, are a bottomless pit of efficiencies and savings.

Thomas Benski
Md, Pulse Films

With any change comes criticism, but the key is to ensure that the government spending review makes for a more efficient BBC and a more efficient industry, reigniting the entrepreneurial spirit of production companies and channels. The emphasis on broadband and digital will hopefully accelerate the transition to a stronger multiplatform industry and lead to investment from the BBC, other channels and the private sector. It’s also important that projects such as YouView come to market with a clear proposition – another step in the media’s transformation, and I’m optimistic it will help create new opportunities.

Rose Lewis
Partner, Pembridge

The creative sector has a habit of trailing the general economy into and out of recession. If you are in the BBC, there will be a few more years of cost cutting and job cutting, but if you are in the private sector, assuming the economists are right and we manage to miss the double dip, then life could start to lighten up. Sure, these are not boom times, but as long as you are not reliant on the public purse, life will start to get better. Great news? Well, it’s tinged with an element of caution. Just because you may earn more does not mean the chancellor will not be taking it back in taxes. But all in all the creative sector is in recovery.

Peter Hampden,
Director, LipSync

I was relieved that the BBC cuts were not as drastic as some had first feared. However, as a producer and post-production facility that regularly handles high-end drama and films either directly or indirectly for the BBC, alarm bells are ringing. I think it will certainly mean further belt-tightening in the industry, and possibly more closures in Soho for the unprepared. However, I hope it doesn’t lead to a curbing of ambition in terms of project themes or a reduction in production values; we’ll be getting creative and trying to do more with less rather than limiting our vision.

Liz Mills,
Founder and md, MillsyMac

There is little doubt that the next few years are going to be tough as the recession bites deep. However, the licence fee settlement that the government struck with the BBC does at least bring some kind of certainty. It’s imperative that the BBC carries on providing excellent programming over the coming years. Meanwhile, its main rival BSkyB reports record profits with customers rising to almost 10 million - so there are opportunities for suppliers to develop great creative content that can be exploited on an international and multiplatform level. It’s never easy but as more people are staying at home and searching for something to watch, it’s a real chance to win back the viewers and with them the advertisers.

Simon Vyvyan
Md, Industry Media

The indie sector has always been a risky business and there is no better example of this than drama. When ITV was forced into its credit crunch shell in 2009, the impact hit many hard, but Sky was still a commissioning force. Now, eighteen months later, ITV1 is back. The same thing happened at C4. It was unable to invest heavily in drama in 2009 but, with Big Brother gone, now it can. So, whilst it’s hugely important to the sector for the BBC to be well funded, I am optimistic that the mixed broadcast economy is strong enough to withstand a double dip. And if drama can survive, then so too can other genres.

Gareth Wilding,
Sales and marketing director, Fineline Media Finance

As a publicly funded body the BBC enjoys a privileged position which has gifted it a competitive advantage in the commercial market. All public bodies must cut their costs and the BBC is no exception. However this surely presents an opportunity to reappraise “Producers Choice” – the free-market policy loathed by some within Wood Lane was the lifeblood to many in the private sector and could be again. Value for the licence-payer and a revitalised private-sector broadcast services community in one – simples!

Posted 29 October 2010 by David Wood

Setting a dangerous precedent

The rules of engagement on licence fee renewal are not written down anywhere, but the tradition is that it's a civilised, lengthy and painstaking process. Not the latest deal thrashed out between the BBC and the government, conducted over a week in the run up to the much-anticipated spending review.

In its wake the BBC spin-machine was busily weaving its version of the settlement, portraying the deal with the government to fix the licence fee at £145.50 per household until 2017 against a background of the most severe cuts seen in the public sector since the 1940s, as a result. Or at worst, the best it could have expected.

In truth there are upsides for the corporation. It will enjoy the benefits of a fixed income when most public services are contemplating considerable pain.  Another benefit was that the deal was done so fast there was no time for any of the traditional BBC bashers (BSkyB, commercial television, all right wing media commentators) to mount long and tedious lobbying campaigns arguing for the BBC’s scope to be dramatically curtailed.

Best of all, the corporation escaped the significantly bigger financial burden of taking on the provision of free TV licences for the over-75s – a state benefit from Department for Work and Pension. Plus it avoided being forced into selling its commercial arm BBC Worldwide, which generates big money for the broadcaster. 

On the downside a frozen licence fee equates to a 16% budget cut, when inflation and the huge pile of new responsibilities which the government has piled on the corporation are taken into account.

The quid pro quo of a guaranteed income is the BBC has agreed to fund the World Service and Welsh language broadcaster S4C, two broadcasting institutions previously funded by the government – thereby helping the Foreign Office and the DCMS meet their spending reduction targets.

In addition the cash previously earmarked for funding digital switchover from the licence fee will now be diverted to an annual £150m contribution to the rollout of superfast broadband, and the corporation will also be given responsibility for the roll out of local TV to the tune of £25m annually.

In reality the corporation isn’t really being asked to do anything which doesn’t fit into its public service remit: why shouldn’t its resources be spent on minority language content provision for S4C or reporting on international issues for the World Service? Wider recognition that the World Service is now to be funded by the BBC rather than the UK government is surely better for its journalistic reputation?

To make ends meet it seems unlikely that cutting back on paper clips and croissants will suffice.  The BBC will have to cut something big and expensive. One area almost certain to be hit hard will be the scope of the World Service. Perhaps a digital TV channel will have to be sacrificed - £83m-a-year BBC3 for instance, which has always looked a little suspect in terms of its public service credentials.

But the most significant cost to the BBC may not be the £340m a year dent in its finances but the precedent it has set for taking on commitments dictated by government policy. Now there is a real danger that the BBC will be seen as a bottomless pit of cash, on hand to facilitate any communications objective the government sees fit.

In some respects the corporation only has itself to blame. The principle that it could be a useful agent to facilitate government policy was established when it agreed to fund the social and communication costs of digital switchover in 2006. Many argued at the time that it was a dangerous move by the BBC that the corporation would live to regret. Prophetic words indeed.

Posted 25 October 2010 by David Wood
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